Collective Consciousness Supported by the Web

Teilhard described the Noosphere’s anatomy through analogy. Since all organisms have fundamental functional needs at every level of life’s hierarchy—from microorganisms to multicellular animals, and superorganisms such as social insect colonies as well—those analogies are apt. They make it easier to envision the Noosphere as a superorganism itself.

For example, Teilhard wrote that it’s “legitimate to talk in the sphere of economics of the existence and development of a circulatory or a nutritional system applicable to Mankind as a whole.” In October 2021, we’re experiencing how appropriate that analogy is. Our economic circulatory system of global trade is experiencing arteriosclerosis as transportation routes become blocked and supply chains are drying up.

The Noosphere’s current circulatory problems are of course secondary symptoms caused by COVID-19. The pandemic rapidly and radically altered supply and demand for numerous economic goods. Even as the pandemic itself begins to recede, those secondary symptoms are growing worse.

Though Teilhard doesn’t directly discuss the Noosphere’s immune system in his writings, the analogy between the Noosphere’s reaction to pandemic disease and our own immune system’s ability to fight off viral infections is hard to ignore.

Analogies are admittedly imperfect at best, but nevertheless instructive. Whereas the functioning of the human immune system is mediated by biological processes that have been coevolving with our bodies for millions of years, our Noospheric immune system—our ability to coordinate global cooperation to manage transmission and protection against disease—is being mediated by the rapidly evolving global brain of the World Wide Web—a relatively recent technological innovation that is still taking shape.

Teilhard of course wrote of the Noosphere’s global brain—what he called its “Brain of brains”. Even though the Internet didn’t exist during his lifetime, he foresaw that the elements of electronic information technology—including mass media and computers—would provide the connectivity and processing power to link human minds, from which collective consciousness would eventually emerge.

Hypothesizing a Noospheric immune system mediated by the Internet suggests questions to investigate: How effectively has the global conversation via social media on the World Wide Web addressed the challenges of COVID-19? Is our global brain evolving a functional collective consciousness, capable of organizing collective action to address global threats such as pandemics? If our collective response to COVID has been in some ways less than ideal, can we better understand these Noospheric processes so as to address future threats more effectively?

Investigating these and many other questions regarding collective consciousness and the global brain is the work of a group of researchers at the Center Leo Apostel (CLEA) for transdisciplinary studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Free University of Brussels), led by Francis Heylighen.

CLEA is part of an international effort initiated, funded, and directed by the Human Energy Project (HEP) to provide a scientific foundation for a theory of the Noosphere. Their research builds on the related concepts of the Global Brain and the distributed intelligence of the Internet. In addition, CLEA is working with HEP to develop an integrated, meaningful, science-based worldview called the Third Story.

Recently Heylighen collaborated with Shima Beigi, another member of their team, on a research paper titled Collective Consciousness Supported by the Web: Healthy or Toxic? A full text PDF of the paper can be downloaded here. Their study looks at the online Noospheric conversation around the COVID-19 pandemic, in order to examine how collective consciousness is functioning today. The paper’s abstract:

“We define the Noosphere as the conscious level of the web, where global conversations are being held about collective challenges. To understand its dynamics, we review three neuroscientific theories of consciousness: information integration, adaptive resonance, and global workspace. These suggest that conscious thoughts are characterized by a “resonant”, self-maintaining pattern of circulating information. This pattern should be sufficiently stable to be examined and dependably stored, yet sufficiently plastic to adapt to new input. The self-organizing dynamics of ideas circulating on the web, however, may settle in an attractor that is too resistant to accommodate new information. This results in a closed, toxic form of collective consciousness exemplified by conspiracy theories. We review the global discussion of the COVID-19 pandemic to illustrate healthy and unhealthy forms of noospheric consciousness. We then argue for the need to promote the healthy form via the modeling of the dynamics of idea propagation and the dissemination of narratives promoting open conversation.”

It’s important to note that the concept of the Noosphere writ large includes much more than social media and the World Wide Web. It encompasses all of human activity–such as the circulatory system of economic trade mentioned above–and importantly in the case of COVID-19, the vast, interconnected, global community of science.

That part of the Noosphere functioned in an exemplary manner during the pandemic–as we know well, the scientific community exchanged information on the virus and came up with an incredibly effective vaccine in record time. While social media sites may have spread false information about the vaccines, and our political and economic systems may have failed to distribute them widely and quickly enough, that doesn’t take away from the fact that the scientific community functioned extraordinarily well.

Perhaps we can learn something about how to build a better social and political Noosphere by studying how the scientific segment of the Noosphere works.

The authors met with Science of the Noosphere’s David Sloan Wilson to discuss their findings. Their conversation is presented in three parts below.

Summary of Part One

David begins by asking about their motivation for writing the paper. Francis explains that he and Shima had already been working on understanding the neurophysiology of consciousness in individual brains, and decided to apply that to the idea of a global brain—“In Teilhardian terminology, will the Noosphere become conscious?” Because consciousness itself is poorly defined, their goal was to connect theories of consciousness with theories of the Noosphere.

Shima relates this motivation to their more general collaborative work on complex systems, and the idea that the formation of the Noosphere at global scale is connected with ideas such as sustainable development and systems thinking. She thinks a next step for the Noosphere is to connect it with ideas about the qualitative nature of consciousness and the state of consciousness research. She asks if by doing so we can steer the conversation toward the qualitative dimension of the Noosphere, and in doing so consciously affect it.

David asks about two dimensions of consciousness, divided not into conscious and subconscious but into processes that are more intentional and deliberate, and those that are not. Shima responds that she thinks this is a difficult to divide layers of consciousness in this way, and explains why.

Francis also disagrees with dividing consciousness along those two dimensions, and explains why one of the theories of consciousness they discuss in their paper—the global workspace—provides a different perspective on intentionality.

David agrees with their explanations, then turns the conversation to the bottom line of intentionality as it relates to solving the COVID problem, as a process of conscious evolution. Shima suggests that solving the COVID problem in the Internet Age also requires becoming more conscious as individuals of what we’re putting out there in our online conversations. Francis explains that what he and Shima are doing in their paper is a subset of the kind of conscious evolution David describes. He thinks that on the web it is conscious evolution at the level of the meme—ideas that are spreading in the Noosphere.

David suggests that in thinking about conscious evolution of memes, it is important to consider the unit of selection—that if you want to select out the fake news memes and select the scientifically accurate memes, the criterion of selection has to be the health of the whole system at large.

Francis responds that is part of the research that he and Shima are still developing—broader research into sustainability and resilience that makes the whole system the kind of system we want. He explains that in more detail in terms of synergistic interactions among agents.

In regard to conscious evolution at the level of the system, Shima adds the idea that “as evolutionary beings, I think we are capable of creating adaptive, selective pressures that would help us to evolve in certain direction that is desirable, that is much more adaptive to the spirit of the time that we’re living in. And also bringing, I think, global conversation about memes, or memeplexes, or ideologies that are not serving us at this particular time.”

Collective Consciousness Supported by the Web: Part One Transcript

Summary of Part Two

David begins by explaining that the concept of living complex adaptive systems needs to be informed by evolutionary insights. One key insight is is that adaptation takes place at the level of a unit of selection—the level at which the entity in question, such as a human brain, is functionally organized. He makes the point that even though such a unit may be a stable attractor, it may not necessarily be beneficial for the common good of all of its parts. He explains that to understand any functional unit, such as an ecosystem, a brain, or the Noosphere, we need to understand the selective process that brought that unit into being—in other words, what are the criteria of selection for which the whole system is being optimized.

Francis observes that the regimes that are stable and also healthy are those that are more open and have a wide range of adaptability. He gives the classic example of a totalitarian regime versus a democracy. The totalitarian regime may seem stable, but because of its narrow range of adaptability, it is much more vulnerable to collapse if perturbed. He explains that idea is one way they distinguish between healthy and unhealthy forms of consciousness in the Noosphere—healthier ones have a wider range of adaptability. That idea is consonant with the theory of consciousness known as Adaptive Resonance.

Shima comments that the line of thought that David introduced was a step in their process of distinguishing between healthy and toxic types of Noosphere. She elaborates on the Adaptive Resonance theory of consciousness that Francis introduced, and explains the stability-plasticity dilemma—“to what extent the organism is capable of monitoring the flow of information, and also selecting openness for a new form of information to be integrated with the old layers of information. So systems that are basically closed or have a lower coefficients of observing this flow of information are basically incapable of adapting to the new information. So their learning capability is really hindered because of that lower adaptability.”

David brings in the idea of levels of health—what is health for some entities at a lower-level may be unhealthy for the system as a whole. What is adaptive behavior at one level may not be adaptive at a higher level of selection.

Francis observes that when talking about being adaptive, it’s a question of adapting to what. A system exists in an environment, and that environment can be narrow or wide. What is adaptive behavior in a narrow context may be non-adaptive when we widen it out. If we consider the system as the global superorganism of the Noosphere, “then any in-group that fights another out-group is non-adaptive because it creates friction within this Noosphere.” That’s why polarization is nonadaptive. Plasticity to be able to take in new inputs may help develop better strategies for the Noosphere today.

Shima adds her ideas about designing adaptive pathways to lead a system toward new and better attractors. She also explains why she thinks we’re in a mereological crisis, because “when a conversation or a level of dialogue between parts in a complex system start to basically be under certain kinds of stress or pressure, or being caught or changed, what happens is that parts start to lose their frame of reference, and what they do after that is that they become discrete parts and they no longer create a whole.”

David introduces the idea that the expansion of the Noosphere is gradual, and its important to look for Noospheric processes that have proven successful at intermediate scales, and by understanding the processes at intermediate scales we can built up to the global scale.

Shima thinks that globalization is influencing how different layers of the Noosphere are connecting to each other. The sheer amount and intensity of information people are exposed to is part of that influence, and is really affecting the way individuals are thinking. She thinks COVID represents the first time that a mass stressor was introduced to this new information system, and we can learn new ways, new etiquettes to adapt, and new possibilities for improving the Noosphere.

Francis picks up on David’s idea of successful adaptation at intermediate scales. He thinks those intermediate scales systems have undergone selection that have led to rules and norms that are effective within their communities. However, now that we are a global society faced with global problems like COVID and a means of interacting like the Internet, “suddenly we don’t have these rules anymore. We don’t have any clear norms that tell us how we should behave in these circumstances.” He agrees with Shima that we need new etiquettes. Without them we see all sorts of pathological behaviors. While in previous pandemics there may have been conspiracy theories, but they couldn’t propagate so quickly and at global scale. While we need new etiquettes and may learn something from those intermediate scales, it won’t be enough because there are entirely new dynamics at play.

Shima adds the idea that she thinks we can learn something from intermediate scales that have faced crises and gone through major paradigm shifts.

David makes the point that it doesn’t require a crisis like COVID for pathologies to take place. He thinks that what’s pathological is the basic concept that laissez-faire—everyone pursuing their own separate interests—can somehow work out for the greater good. He introduces Michelle Gelfand’s ideas of tight and loose cultures, and how they react differently to threats. Tight cultures have strong norms that are strongly enforced, and loose cultures the opposite. Tight cultures are better at collective action, whereas loose cultures are more innovative and adaptive to novel conditions.

Francis responds that this idea of tight and loose cultures is connected with the stability-plasticity dilemma that’s part of the Adaptive Resonance theory of consciousness, and explains how that works.

David brings in the continuum from conservatism to progressivism as another example of this idea—that a mix of both may be the best adaptive strategy for a society as a whole. He ends the conversation by observing that most businesses are not very adaptable—that cultural evolution in the business world advances through creative destruction, by businesses failing to adapt to change and dying out so that new ones that innovate can take their place.

Collective Consciousness Supported by the Web: Part Two Transcript

Summary of Part Three

David begins the last part of the conversation with a discussion of Wikipedia as an example of a part of the Noosphere that works well. He asks Francis and Shima to comment on the “blend of system level oversight and bottom-up generativity” that makes it work.

Shima comments that “ It’s a…balance between a degree of decentralization and bottom up movement, and informal links in your system. At the same time, a general regulation and control mechanism that can create an environment that creates rich and meaningful connection.”

Francis thinks that “Wikipedia actually is I think more bottom-up than centralized, but it has a beautiful solution to this stability-plasticity dilemma. So the stability is that you want to keep the good knowledge in Wikipedia. The plasticity is that you would want anybody who has some idea, that is relevant to Wikipedia to be able to add that easily.” He explains how that works, and that he has been observing Wikipedia since its early days. More central control has come in along the way. He also describes how false and/or conflicting information is dealt with.

In regard to false information, particularly when vested interests are at stake, David suggests that something like an immune system might be needed. “Just take a polarized situation and just imagine (vested interests) all trying to pump in their information into Wikipedia. There has to be some process that pumps it out…In other words, there has to be a stronger immune system. It’s not just a matter of bad versus good information. It’s a matter of the equivalent of disease organisms that are actively trying to invade.”

Francis answers that such situations are rare, as most Wikipedia pages are on relatively neutral topics, so the regular editorial process works. If there is a strong dispute, pages simply acknowledge that there is a dispute, in a “she says, he says” manner, more or less.

David observes that there are scholarly or journalistic standards that are applied, and asks Shima to comment.

Shima thinks that the example of Wikipedia is hard to generalize, since it’s a unique case. However, if we want to apply some of its ideas as inspiration for the Noosphere, we need to search for common ground. “Even though that we might have different points of view or ideas, you’re still sharing the same kind of Noosphere. And I think bringing the conversation and narrative in that direction would contribute to what you mentioned about the immune system of the Noosphere. How can we make it strong by actually bringing awareness that certain ideas indeed harm all of us? Even some of us might not believe them, but we are being exposed to them by virtue of being a part of this whole.“

David wants to finish up with the need to improve our situation, because there are so many things that need improving, particularly as we look at the global scale. He asks Shima and Francis what they think.

Shima believes that change begins with a local process—that we need to manifest the change we want to see in the world by manifesting it in ourselves.

Francis addresses the conclusions they came to in their paper: “How do we deal with all these problems that we have identified on the Internet? The conspiracy theories, the false news, et cetera, all the confusion.” They thought of two strategies.

The first strategy is to better understand the dynamics of all those things—an understanding that encompasses such things as personal psychology, memetics, social norms, and social media algorithms that determine what information users actually see. By understanding all of those dynamics and how they interact, we can develop new norms of behavior that consciously cause the Noosphere to evolve in a beneficial direction.

The other part of the strategy is to develop new narratives—the Third Story that the Human Energy project is developing. People need to understand that though the human evolutionary process may be complex, it has direction and soul. The Third Story has to stretch across the Internet and the Noosphere, and though it’s rooted in science, it has to have the power to inspire non-scientists. We need a Third Story “that gives people again a sense of belonging to some larger whole that is evolving in a positive way.”

David ends with his own conviction that we also need constant experimentation, undertaken with the welfare of the whole earth in mind. Such experimentation is essential for conscious evolution to take place.

Collective Consciousness Supported by the Web: Part Three Transcript